Italians say, “Only good people die.” That pretty much sums up the American habit of glorifying the dead and ignoring their faults, however glaring or egregious. So when society matron and Republican icon Eileen Slocum died this week at 92, her image appeared on the Providence Journal’s front page, beside a headline proclaiming her “Newport’s grande dame.”
While Slocum’s death was newsworthy, there’s still some irony in how the statewide daily printed as part of its news coverage the kind of memorial details that would cost ordinary Rhode Islanders more than $1000 in an obituary.
Slocum was a Republican National Committeewoman for more than 15 years, and local media sought her comments on some political issues.
But this was because she made good copy or a great sound bite — often since she was so out of touch with the world of the average voter to be amusing. Her affected accent (she was born in New York, not London) added a cartoon edge to her commentary.
One Slocum quote contained in the ProJo’s coverage of her death, had it been made by anyone with less money, and therefore less influence, would have rightfully raised the flag of bigotry. In discussing Newport society’s ability to remain “pure,” she had said, “By being rather fastidious about the people in the clubs, we’ve managed to control the particular atmosphere in the community.”
The story also described Slocum as having been born and raised in a world that no longer exists — to which many of us would respond, “Thank God!”
That world was one in which “coloreds” as well as ethnics of any shade, need not apply. It was the world defined by wealth and lineage, where judgments are made and exclusions enforced on those considered social “underlings.” It is the same world in which George H.W. Bush called his half-Latino grandchildren ”little brown ones.”
It is also a world in which Eileen Slocum, an ardent opponent of reproductive freedom and a staunch supporter of “basic family values,” spent her days trying to deprive poor men and women of access to the same societal choices enjoyed by the rich.
By day, Slocum tried to convince single working mothers to have one more unintended child. In the evening, her guest list included the “grande dames” that for generations had routine access to abortions.
She would turn down her nose at the hoi polloi who might have had an affair or sought a divorce to end an abusive marriage, while her ballroom was filled with society’s 400, well known for their sexual excesses and the flouting of marriage vows.
Such contradictions may not find their way into obituary pieces, but they ought to be included in the official history.